Autism: Symptoms (page 3)

— Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Updated on Jan 30, 2012

Pattern of Development

Some children with ASDs show hints of future problems within the first few months of life. In others, symptoms may not show up until 24 months or later. Studies have shown that one third to half of parents of children with ASDs noticed a problem before their child’s first birthday, and nearly 80%–90% saw problems by 24 months. Some children with ASDs seem to develop normally until 18–24 months of age and then they stop gaining new language and social skills, or they lose the skills they had.

Children with ASDs develop at different rates in different areas of growth. They may have delays in language, social, and learning skills, while their motor skills are about the same as other children their age. They might be very good at putting puzzles together or solving computer problems, but they might have trouble with social activities like talking or making friends. Children with ASDs might also learn a hard skill before they learn an easy one. For example, a child might be able to read long words but not be able to tell you what sound a "b" makes.

Children develop at their own pace, so it can be difficult to tell exactly when a child will learn a particular skill. But there are age-specific developmental milestones used to measure a child’s social and emotional progress in the first few years of life. To learn more about developmental milestones, visit “Learn the Signs. Act Early,” a campaign designed by CDC and a coalition of partners to teach parents, health care professionals, and child care providers about early childhood development, including possible ”red flags” for autism spectrum disorders.

Possible Red Flags for Autism Spectrum Disorders

Children and adults with an autism spectrum disorder might:

  • Not play "pretend" games (pretend to "feed" a doll)

  • Not point at objects to show interest (point at an airplane flying over)

  • Not look at objects when another person points at them

  • Have trouble relating to others or not have an interest in other people at all

  • Avoid eye contact and want to be alone

  • Have trouble understanding other people's feelings or talking about their own feelings

  • Prefer not to be held or cuddled or might cuddle only when they want to

  • Appear to be unaware when other people talk to them but respond to other sounds

  • Be very interested in people, but not know how to talk to, play with, or relate to them

  • Repeat or echo words or phrases said to them, or repeat words or phrases in place of normal language (echolalia)

  • Have trouble expressing their needs using typical words or motions

  • Repeat actions over and over again

  • Have trouble adapting to changes in routine

  • Have unusual reactions to the way things smell, taste, look, feel, or sound
  • Lose skills they once had (for instance, stop saying words they were once using)
  • Talk to your child’s doctor or nurse if your child loses skills at any age.

What can I do if I think my child has an ASD?

If you or your doctor thinks there could be a problem, ask for a referral to see a developmental pediatrician or other specialist. You can also call your local early intervention agency (for children under 3) or public school (for children 3 and older). To find out who to speak to in your area, check with the National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities.

Today, the main research-based  treatment for ASDs is intensive structured teaching of skills, often called behavioral intervention. It is very important to start this intervention as early as possible to help your child reach his or her full potential. Acting early can make a real difference! 

Even if your child has not been diagnosed with an ASD, he or she may be eligible for early intervention services. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) says that children under the age of 3 who are at risk of having serious developmental delays may be eligible for services. These services are provided through an early intervention system in your state. Through this system, you can ask for an evaluation. To learn more about early intervention, click here.

Disclaimer: We have provided a link to these sites because they have information that may be of interest to you. CDC does not necessarily endorse the views or information presented on these sites. Furthermore, CDC does not endorse any commercial products or information that may be presented or advertised on these sites.

[1] Johnson, C.P. Early Clinical Characteristics of Children with Autism.  In: Gupta, V.B. ed: Autistic Spectrum Disorders in Children.  New York: Marcel Dekker, Inc., 2004:85-123.

[2] Tuchman,R., and Rapin, I. Epilepsy in autism. Lancet Neurology 2002; 1(6):352-358.


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